Increasing fears surrounding migration in the UK are rarely far from society’s surface, and re-materialised in the public debate a few months ago, after a “No Eastern Europeans” sign was placed at the entrance of a fishery in Warwickshire.
The owner of the fishing lake claimed that people from Eastern Europe were responsible for fish stock depletion in the lake, as instead of releasing the fish they caught, the Eastern European fishermen would apparently eat them. Although the sign has since been removed by the local police, the lake owner has not been charged. On the contrary, he and his neighbours claim that the sign and their attitudes towards their fellow EU citizens were not racist.
The story of one Warwickshire fishery is just an example of a broader social and political climate in the UK, in which prejudices and stereotypes about immigrants are ripe. As the work restriction on Bulgarian and Romanian citizens will be lifted from January 1, 2014, the potential “threat” of new migrants – who happen to be fellow EU citizens – has been overplayed by the politicians and the media. Polls indicate that the number of those who see immigration as “very bad” has increased from 11 percent to 21 percent in the past 10 years, possibly as a result of the frequent targeting of immigration policies by political groups across the spectrum.
British officials commissioned a report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which was entitled “Potential impacts on the UK of future migration from Bulgaria and Romania”. According to the report, it is not possible to predict the number of those expected to arrive to the UK over the next year. Facing a potential increase in the migrant population, UK government has revealed its plans to cut health and housing benefits, in an attempt to prevent the “abuse of the system” by foreigners and to remove the supposed incentives for migrants.
At the opening of parliament, the Queen spoke of a desire to curb migration and impose NHS contributions and additional checks on migrants in the UK. Prime Minister David Cameron added that immigrants could “no longer come here and expect something for nothing”.
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But, in spite of the negative political and media portrayal of Eastern Europeans, the report indicates that these migrants claim benefits less than other migrant groups, and even less than those born in Britain. It is rarely mentioned that majority of the immigrants who come to the UK, and the other EU states, move in order to work, not to claim benefits. In fact, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research estimates that some 700,000 people have moved to the UK since 2004 and have contributed about 5bn pounds ($7.5bn) to the UK GDP. Indeed, net migration to the UK has fallen by a third in the past year, according to statistics released on Thursday by the Office for National Statistics.
Yet, Migration Watch UK claims that migrants’ contribution to the economy, compared with their use of social services, is not enough to justify their presence in the UK.
As I followed the debates around migration and UK attitudes towards foreigners, I wondered how immigration could be the most important question in the country, considering the numerous economic and social issues. After all, every homeless person I have met here on the streets of Oxford has been British-born, not African, Asian or Eastern European. It has been suggested that the government is using the issues of migration and continuing economic crisis in order to pursue some of its more conservative policies. Labour leader Ed Miliband said that tackling migration would not impact the real issues in the UK, such as economic growth or unemployment.
But, the real question should not be whether the migrants contribute to the economy or not, or how big of an issue migration really is in the country. What concerns me is that very few media outlets or politicians have commented on the human rights implications of these discussions. The attitudes toward Eastern Europeans and the debate around migration in the UK did not even cause a stir among the European organisations which are so keen on publicising human rights violations outside of the Union.
Portraying Eastern Europeans as criminals and barbarians surely constitutes hate-speech and discrimination, something prohibited not only by UK laws, but also by the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, which should apply equally to all member states and people, regardless of their place of birth or its GDP. The fact that the UK has yet to sign or ratify Protocol 12 to the convention, which deals with discrimination, should not absolve it of its moral responsibility.
Having a “No Eastern Europeans” sign in the UK is not only xenophobic – it dangerously resembles “No Jews”, “No Arabs” and “No Blacks” slogans, used by nationalists in days thought long past. Although the sign in Warwickshire has been removed, the feelings of intense dislike, mistrust and stereotypes towards “others” remain.
Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is currently studying for a Masters degree at Oxford University.